Al-Istighfaar (Seeking forgiveness)
Meaning of Istighfaar
Istighfaar is derived from the root gha-fa-ra (‚Äúto forgive‚ÄĚ), and thus it means is ‚Äúto seek forgiveness‚ÄĚ. It is also related to the word mighfar. Ibn ul-Qayyim states in Madaarij us-Saalikeen that the literal meaning of a mighfar is ‚Äúwhat saves the head from discomfort or harm‚ÄĚ. That is why a helmet can be a type of mighfar, but not a turban, because in addition to merely covering the head, a helmet protects it from harm. Effectively, seeking forgiveness does not involve asking for sins to be covered but for freedom from their evil consequences.
Thus, the technical meaning would then be, ‚ÄúSeeking the total removal of sins‚ÄĚ. This is exactly the same as that of tawbah (repentance). Istighfaar and tawbah are one of those pairs of words that substitute for one another. If either is found by itself in the Quran or Sunnah (example of the Prophet(S), it includes the other, but when they are mentioned together, then they take different meanings. In this case, istighfaar would mean, ‚Äúasking for safety from the evil and harm of what has occurred‚ÄĚ, and tawbah would mean, ‚Äúreturning to Allah and begging for safety from the evil of what one fears in future‚ÄĚ.
Some might believe that it only means, ‚Äúseeking a cover for sins‚ÄĚ, but the argument can be made that the mere fact that Allah conceals a person‚Äôs sins does not mean that he has been forgiven for them, as it could be that He is delaying the punishment for them.
Importance of Istighfaar
The Ruling of Istighfaar
The ruling of istighfaar is that it is waajib (mandatory). There are several places in the Quran where Allah commands us to seeking forgiveness with him, and an example is:
Indeed, your Lord knows, [O Muhammad], that you stand [in prayer] almost two thirds of the night or half of it or a third of it, and [so do] a group of those with you. And Allah determines [the extent of] the night and the day. He has known that you [Muslims] will not be able to do it and has turned to you in forgiveness, so recite what is easy [for you] of the Quran. He has known that there will be among you those who are ill and others traveling throughout the land seeking [something] of the bounty of Allah and others fighting for the cause of Allah. So recite what is easy from it and establish prayer and give zakah and loan Allah a goodly loan. And whatever good you put forward for yourselves - you will find it with Allah. It is better and greater in reward. And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
Allah also says:
And seek forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is ever Forgiving and Merciful.
Merits of Istighfaar
Istighfaar is so important that even the Prophet (S), the best of all creation himself, used to do it excessively in many times and places.
It has come to us in the Saheeh Bukhari:
O people, repent to your Lord, for verily I seek forgiveness from Allah and repent to him more than seventy times in a day."
It is reported in Saheeh Muslim that he said: "I seek forgiveness one hundred times in a day." [Muslim].
Allah loves to forgive so much, that Abu Hurayrah(r) reports from the Prophet(S):
By Him in Whose Hand is my life, if you were not to commit sin, Allah would sweep you out of existence and He would replace (you by) those people who would commit sin and seek forgiveness from Allah, and He would have pardoned them. [Muslim]
But few are those who rush to the one who loves to forgive‚Ä¶
Two Matters That the Da‚Äôwah  is Founded On
The first is the call to worship none but Allah, and the second is to seek forgiveness with Allah.
Allah commanded the Prophet(S) directly:
So know, [O Muhammad], that there is no deity [worthy of worship ]except Allah and ask forgiveness for your sin and for the believing men and believing women . And Allah knows of your movement and your resting place.
This also extends to the rest of his ummah (nation):
Alif, Lam, Ra. [This is] a Book whose verses are perfected and then presented in detail from [one who is] Wise and Acquainted. [Through a messenger, saying], "Do not worship except Allah. Indeed, I am to you from Him a warner and a bringer of good tidings,‚ÄĚ And [saying], "Seek forgiveness of your Lord and repent to Him, [and] He will let you enjoy a good provision for a specified term and give every doer of favor his favor. But if you turn away, then indeed, I fear for you the punishment of a great Day.
Benefits of Istighfaar
Istighfaar causes the doer to benefit in both this life and the next:
And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, oh believers, that you might succeed 
Allah prevents the punishment from falling on those who make Istighfaar
But Allah would not punish them while you, [O Muhammad], are among them, and Allah would not punish them while they seek forgiveness.
Istighfaar is a relief from many kinds of problems that occur in this life, particularly those of provision, having children and rain
In the assembly of Hasan al-Basri, the great scholar of the second generation, a person complained of drought, he said to him "Beg forgiveness of Allah." Another person complained of poverty. A third one said that he was not being blessed with children. A fourth one said that his harvest had failed, and he continued to remind everyone to beg forgiveness of Allah. The people asked: "How is it that you have suggested to all the people one and the same cure for the different complaints? He in response recited the following verses of Surah Nuh to them:
And [I, Nuh(A)] said, 'Ask forgiveness of your Lord. Indeed, He is ever a Perpetual Forgiver. He will send [rain from] the sky upon you in [continuing] showers and give you increase in wealth and children and provide for you gardens and provide for you rivers.' 
Istighfaar earns Allah‚Äôs love
Indeed, Allah loves those who are constantly repentant and loves those who purify themselves.
Some Reasons for Istighfaar
Rasoolullah(S) was commanded to seek forgiveness for his own sins, and by default we are to ask forgiveness for ours:
So know, [O Muhammad], that there is no deity except Allah and ask forgiveness for your sin and for the believing men and believing women. And Allah knows of your movement and your resting place. [47:19]
Asking Allah of what one has no knowledge of
When Allah warned Nuh(a) not to ask Him about what he had no knowledge of the answer was:
Nuh (Noah) said: "O my Lord! I seek refuge with You from asking You that of which I have no knowledge. And unless You forgive me and have Mercy on me, I would indeed be one of the losers. 
Darkening of the heart
Allah's Apostle (peace be upon him) said: There is (at times) some sort of shade upon my heart, and I seek forgiveness from Allah a hundred times a day. [Muslim]
How to Perform Istighfaar
Because istighfaar is actually a synonym for tawbah (repentance), the way of istighfaar includes the same as for tawbah, namely:
- Immediate renunciation of the sin
- Firm intention and determination to not return to the sin ever again
- Regret over having committed a sin
- If the sin was against the rights of another human being, then one must also compensate for it.
In addition to tawbah, three additional conditions apply:
- Proper belief in all the six pillars of Imaan
- Performing good deeds after repenting, by heart, tongue and limbs
- Staying on the right guidance until death and not turning back from it
All of these four conditions can be found in the noble aayah:
But indeed, I am the Perpetual Forgiver of whoever repents and believes and does righteousness and then continues in guidance. [20:82]
The Prophet (S) said, "None of you should say: 'O Allah! Forgive me if You wish,' or 'Bestow Your Mercy on me if You wish,' or 'Provide me with means of subsistence if You wish,' but he should be firm in his request, for Allah does what He will and nobody can force Him (to do anything)." (Bukhari).
Asking by Allah‚Äôs Names
One of the most effective ways to make dua for forgiveness is through Allah‚Äôs most beautiful Names, as He has told us:
And to Allah belong the best names, so invoke Him by them. 
Three of His Names in particular we can use are al-Ghafoor (He who forgives), al-Ghaafir (He who forgives much) and Al-‚ÄėAffoo (He who pardons).
Istighfaar on behalf of others
Seeking forgiveness for others is a praiseworthy act that has many evidences from the Quran and Sunnah.
So by mercy from Allah [O Muhammad], you were lenient with them. And if you had been rude [in speech] and harsh in heart, they would have disbanded from about you. So pardon them and ask forgiveness for them and consult them in the matter. And when you have decided, then rely upon Allah. Indeed, Allah loves those who rely [upon Him]. 
It from a person‚Äôs mercy and leniency towards others that he seeks forgiveness of others, and no man was more merciful to his nation than the Messenger(S), who used to ask forgiveness both for himself and for his flock. A hard-hearted person refrains from asking forgiveness from others.
Seeking forgiveness for others is by itself a way to earn our own forgiveness, according to the general meaning of the Prophet(S)‚Äôs statement:
The Dua (invocation) of a person for his Muslim brother in his absence will be answered. At his head there is an angel, and every time he prays for him for something good, the angel who has been appointed to be with him, says, 'Ameen, may you have likewise.
A beautiful thing is that even the angels ask forgiveness for others, as Allah says
Those [angels] who carry the Throne and those around it exalt [Allah] with praise of their Lord and believe in Him and ask forgiveness for those who have believed, [saying], "Our Lord, You have encompassed all things in mercy and knowledge, so forgive those who have repented and followed Your way and protect them from the punishment of Hellfire.‚ÄĚ 
The people they include in their prayer are those who themselves repent and follow Allah‚Äôs way (Islam), so repentance and following that true guidance themselves are a means to earn Allah‚Äôs forgiveness.
Istighfaar is not allowed on behalf of certain people
The people that true slaves of Allah are not allowed to ask forgiveness for are those who died worshipping someone else besides Allah. That is the most hated thing to Allah that closes the door for forgiveness and prohibits Paradise for someone, as Allah has said:
Indeed, Allah does not forgive association with Him, but He forgives what is less than that for whom He wills. And he who associates others with Allah has certainly fabricated a tremendous sin.
It is not for the Prophet and those who have believed to ask forgiveness for the polytheists, even if they were relatives, after it has become clear to them that they are companions of Hellfire. And the request of forgiveness of Abraham for his father was only because of a promise he had made to him. But when it became apparent to Abraham that his father was an enemy to Allah, he disassociated himself from him. Indeed was Abraham compassionate and patient.
It should be noted that even though the prophets of Allah were full of mercy for mankind and were the keenest people in seeking Allah‚Äôs forgiveness for others, Allah forbade them and their followers from asking forgiveness for dead non-Muslims.
In fact, these verses were revealed when the Prophet(S) wanted to ask forgiveness for his own mother and was denied. When he mentioned that Ibraheem(A) had asked for his father, the second verse came in reply that it was only because he was keeping a promise he had made, when the Prophet(S) had made no such promise.
Some Specific Times and Places for Seeking Istighfaar
At the end of a gathering
The expiation for a gathering is for one to recite:
"Subhãnaka 'allãhumma wa bihamdika, 'ash-hadu 'an lã 'ilãha 'illa 'anta, 'astaghfiruka wa 'atoobu 'ilayka."
Glorified are You O' my 'ilãh and I am in Your praise, I testify that there is no 'ilah except You, I ask Your forgiveness and repent unto You. [Abu Dawood and At-Tirmidhee, who said it is hasan saheeh]
In the prayer
Abu Bakr¬ģ narrates: I asked Allah's Apostle(S) to teach me an invocation so that I may invoke Allah with it in my prayer. He told me to say, "Allahumma inni zalumtu nafsi zulman kathiran, Wala yaghfirudhdhunuba illa anta faghfirli maghfiratan min 'Indika, war-hamni innaka antal-ghafururrahim (O Allah! I have done great injustice to myself and none except You forgives sins, so please forgive me and be Merciful to me as You are the Forgiver, the Merciful)." (Bukhari)
Upon finishing the salaah
After finishing the prayer, the Prophet(S) would recite:
"Allãhumma 'antas-salamu, wa minkas-salãmu, tabãrakta yã thaljalãli wal 'ikrãmi." [O' my 'ilãh You are 'As-Salãm [One free from flaws], and from You comes Salãm [peace, or safety], blessed are Thee O' owner of glory and kindness.] [Muslim]
Upon the completion of Hajj
Then depart from the place from where [all] the people depart and ask forgiveness of Allah. Indeed, Allah is Forgiving and Merciful.
Upon the completion of any task
When the Prophet(S) was nearing the end of his life, Allah revealed Surah Nasr in which He said:
Then exalt [Him] with praise of your Lord and ask forgiveness of Him. Indeed, He is ever Accepting of repentance.
Part of the wisdom in this is to seek forgiveness for any shortcomings in the fulfillment of one‚Äôs duty to Allah, and in this case the duty that the Messenger(S) had just fulfilled was in delivering the message.
In the last 10 nights of Ramadan
Allahuma innaka 'afuwwun karimun tuhibbul 'afwa fa ‚Äėafu anni
(O Allah! You are the Most Forgiving and Most Gracious! You love to forgive, so forgive my errors and sins)
Some Duas for Forgiveness from the Quran and Sunnah
When in times of conflict with the disbelievers:
Our Lord, forgive us our sins and the excess [committed] in our affairs and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people.
When seeking protecting from the Fire
Our Lord, indeed whoever You admit to the Fire - You have disgraced him, and for the wrongdoers there are no helpers. Our Lord, indeed we have heard a caller calling to faith, [saying], 'Believe in your Lord,' and we have believed . Our Lord, so forgive us our sins and remove from us our misdeeds and cause us to die with the righteous. Our Lord, and grant us what You promised us through Your messengers and do not disgrace us on the Day of Resurrection. Indeed, You do not fail in [Your] promise." 
When remembering those who have preceded us from the Muslims
And those who came after them (the Muhaajireen and Ansaar) say: "Our Lord! Forgive us and our brethren who have preceded us in Faith, and do not put in our hearts any hatred against those who have believed . Our Lord! You are indeed full of kindness, Most Merciful. 
When remembering parents and the believers
My Lord, forgive me and my parents and whoever enters my house a believer and the believing men and believing women. And do not increase the wrongdoers except in destruction. 
After a going through a difficult trial
And We certainly tried Solomon and placed on his throne a body; then he returned. He said, "My Lord, forgive me and grant me a kingdom such as will not belong to anyone after me. Indeed, You are the Bestower." 
A general remembrance
Allah's Apostle said, "Whoever says, 'Subhan Allah wa bihamdihi,' one hundred times a day, will be forgiven all his sins even if they were as much as the foam of the sea. [Bukhari]
The Prophet said "The most superior way of asking for forgiveness from Allah is: 'Allahumma anta Rabbi la ilaha illa anta, Khalaqtani wa ana abduka, wa ana 'ala ahdika wa wa'dika mastata'tu, A'udhu bika min Sharri ma sana'tu, abu'u Laka bini'matika 'alaiya, wa Abu‚Äôu Laka bidhanbi faghfirli innahu la yaghfiru adhdhunuba illa anta."
The meaning thereof:
O Allah, you are my Lord. None has the right to be worshipped but You. You created me and I am Your slave, and I am faithful to my covenant and my promise (to You) as much as I can. I seek refuge with You from all the evil I have done. I acknowledge before You all the blessings You have bestowed upon me, and I confess to You all my sins. So I entreat You to forgive my sins, for nobody can forgive sins except You. 
The Prophet added. "If somebody recites it during the day with firm faith in it, and dies on the same day before the evening, he will be from the people of Paradise; and if somebody recites it at night with firm faith in it, and dies before the morning, he will be from the people of Paradise. [Bukhari]
Istighfaar is that action, which when continually done, keeps the slave close to Allah and free from all kind of afflictions in both this world and the next. It is hoped that the reader now begins to appreciate the beauty and importance of Istighfaar, following the practice of the best of Allah‚Äôs slaves and continually drawing near to Allah by attaining knowledge and seeking forgiveness throughout all his endeavors. Let the reader remember all the benefits that come with istighfaar and feel urgency to learn about it in further detail. In closing, won‚Äôt the reader respond to following from Allah‚Äôs words before it‚Äôs too late?
Say, "O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful. And turn in repentance and in obedience with true Faith (Islamic Monotheism) to your Lord and submit to Him, (in Islam), before the torment comes upon you, then you will not be helped.‚ÄĚ 
Anything in this work that is correct, then that is from Allah, and whatever is incorrect it is only from Shaytaan and the soul of the writer, and I seek forgiveness for any shortcomings in my presentation of this topic.
Rajab 7, 1428 (7/21/2007)
Appendix: Other Invocations from the Quran
Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity. It will have [the consequence of] what [good] it has gained, and it will bear [the consequence of] what [evil] it has earned. "Our Lord, do not impose blame upon us if we have forgotten or erred. Our Lord, and lay not upon us a burden like that which You laid upon those before us. Our Lord, and burden us not with that which we have no ability to bear. And pardon us; and forgive us; and have mercy upon us. You are our protector, so give us victory over the disbelieving people."
Our Lord, indeed we have believed, so forgive us our sins and protect us from the punishment of the Fire 
Our Lord, indeed we have heard a caller calling to faith, [saying], 'Believe in your Lord,' and we have believed. Our Lord, so forgive us our sins and remove from us our misdeeds and cause us to die with the righteous.
Our Lord, we have wronged ourselves, and if You do not forgive us and have mercy upon us, we will surely be among the losers 
 Call to Allah
 Note how Allah has set the pattern for the development of a successful caller. First by having the correct belief in Allah and then by seeking forgiveness for one‚Äôs sins and having concern that the sins of others be forgiven as well.
 As hope arises out of uncertainty about the future, it can only be ascribed to the repenter, not to Allah who already knows who attains succeed and who loses.
 Note that tawassul (seeking nearness to Allah) through the fact that one has responded to the Messenger's call to believe in Allah.
 This verse is actually used by some scholars to prove that those who curse any of the companions are not entitled to a share in al-Fai (booty)
 For a further explanation of this beautiful prayer, the reader may consult The Most Excellent Manner of Seeking Forgiveness by Shaykh Abdur-Razzaaq Ibn Abdul-Muhsin al-Abbaad